Jan Nikolai Nelles/ Nora Al-Badri
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Nefertiti for everyone: returning Egypt’s cultural history with the help of a 3D printer

Where do cultural artefacts belong? And what do we really mean by “original”?  

Nefertiti’s 3,300-year-old bust is one of the most famous artefacts of the Ancient Egyptian world. But to join the million-odd tourists who visit the statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s wife every year, you must travel not to Cairo, but to Berlin’s Neues Museum.

Nefertiti’s resting place has earned her a place on Time magazine’s “Top 10 Plundered Artefacts” list, and she isn’t alone. The grand museums we enjoy throughout the west are filled with objects collected for “safekeeping” over the past few centuries from countries to whose cultural history they belong.

Even now, we cling on: just ask Greece, whose Elgin marbles nearly landed the British government in front of the International Criminal Court. They’re still on display in the British Museum.

To the history of Nefertiti’s location, however, we can now add a curious footnote. In October 2015, German artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles visited the Neues Museum several times, equipped with a covert 3D scanner hidden under Al-Badri’s jacket. Using the scans of the statue, they 3D printed a polymer resin replica, accurate to individual chips and pockmarks. The files of the scans are available for anyone to download for free. They called the project “Nefertiti for Everyone”.

The Times has described the artists as criminals, who carried out the “very modern crime” of ripping off the intellectual property of the Berlin museum via 3D scanner. This seems far less convincing, however, when you consider the history of the statue itself – and the fact that even an Egyptian visiting Berlin would pay pay €12 (€6 concessions) for the privilege of viewing the statue. Photography – let alone 3D scanning – is banned in the display room. Until now, Nefertiti most certainly was not for everyone. 

Al-Badri and Nelles displayed “The Other Nefertiti” in Cairo in late 2015; the first time the statue has been exhibited in Egypt in any form. According to reports, residents of the city flocked to see the statue, while thousands more people have downloaded the torrent of the scans. Germany is not taking any steps against the artists, though in a statement last week a spokesperson for the Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation said that the scans are of “minor quality” and so there is “no necessity to react”. Experts, meanwhile, have praised the scans' quality. 

The other nefertiti. Image: Jan Nikolai Nelles/ Nora Al-Badri.

The Neues Museum first acquired the bust in 1913, after German archaeologists split the spoils of their dig with the Egyptian government. The museum argues that this transaction was “legally indisputable”, though some claim that the archaeologists provided a misleading photo of the bust, and didn’t show the object itself to Egyptian inspectors. According to records from the German Oriental Company, one of the archaeologists “wanted to save the bust for us”, ie Germany.

The apparent greediness of archaeologists can be partly explained by the desire to preserve: while Egypt is as able as Germany to put a statue in a glass box, it has a more chequered record of preservation. Some historic sites are still manned by volunteers who live on the tips they receive, though reforms to the way antiquities are managed are on the way. (On a visit to the Valley of the Kings I was asked if I wanted to touch Tutenkamun’s tomb for an extra few Egyptian pounds.) The Egyptian Museum, meanwhile, was looted during the 2011 revolution. 

But do we really believe that cultural objects belong to whoever discovers them, then passing to whoever looks after them? A recent article in Berlin’s Zeitung newspaper claimed that Nefertiti was now “more German” than Egyptian: “The bust has been above ground and visible in Berlin for much longer than it ever was in Egypt.”

I spoke to Nora Al-Badri over email about the question of ownership, and she agrees that returning these objects to their original locations or counties is the best solution: “In an ideal world, repatriating (human remains) and restituting (objects) would be the rightful way.”

The artists have buried the original copy in the desert in a secret location, but another, gypsum version will soon be on display at Cairo’s American University. So while museums abroad maintain their grip on historical objects, are copies a satisfactory halfway point? In China, temples are regularly restored and aspects replaced, since there is less emphasis on “original” objects or fixtures. We value Roman plaster copies of Greek statues, since they’re the closest we have to the orginals.

Al-Badri says that copies “can be an inspiring source to rethink the current and past western mindset of worshipping the original”, which, after all, led to the grasping for ancient artefacts in the first place. The original artifacts shoudn’t be dismissed, Al-Badri says, but we should “value copies” too. 

Burying the statue, she says, is a  “poetic counter-act to the excavation”. There’s a tongue-in-cheek implication that perhaps, since we seem capable of little more than an endless tussle over these objects, a kind of Solomon's judgement is the only way forward: we should just return them to the ground where we found them. If Nefertiti isn't for everyone, then she should be for no one. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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